Designing Alternative Spaces for Engagement

Designing Alternative Spaces for Engagement
Making the Invisible Visible
Victoria Baird
MFA Exhibition Design, University of California, Davis

Many underserved community members have never been to a park or museum. Among the barriers to participation are: feeling of not belonging, lack of interest, money, or transportation. Many of these institutions are looking for new ways to become more relevant and successful by making a connection to their communities through outreach or events (Farrell 13).  What if the museum came to the people?

Imagine going to a local park or shopping mall and encountering a science exhibit that teaches about local or urban wildlife. What if that exhibit could move beyond wayside trail panels (often found in parks on hiking trails) and into the urban environment? What if it was three dimensional and interactive? New opportunities to connect communities with nature would surely abound!

Making the Invisible Visible was a project that surveyed recent examples of alternative exhibit spaces and methods that have been successfully utilized by parks, museums and event organizers. The designer worked with UC Davis Museum of Fish and Wildlife Biology and the Bohart Museum of Entomology to create a nature intervention on campus in the Arboretum along a busy walking path near Putah Creek. Several temporary exhibits were installed along the creek to showcase the wildlife research being done at UC Davis. These exhibits combined and refined ideas learned from a survey of especially successful exhibits and community events. The objective of the project was not to test the effectiveness of successful techniques, but to cull and apply them to a temporary outdoor natural history exhibit in an unexpected setting.


Parks and museums have been working for some time on finding ways to make connections with non-visitors through various forms of outreach at schools or community events. Interpreters are frustrated by the lack of materials and access to transportation for visitors. Outreach methods must be portable, inexpensive, updatable, sophisticated, and go beyond the traditional nature table or wayside panel (See fig.1,2) (Whatley 45). Making the Invisible Visible revealed that it is possible to do all of the above while choosing alternative spaces that will help reach new audiences. 

Bringing science to public spaces is by no means a new concept. Imagine, if you will, the excitement of science in the Victorian era. It was a time when scientists were performers, amazing and delighting crowds of people with curiosities of nature. Science was no longer concealed from public view, but a spectacle of wonder, open to all. Medical operations were performed as shows. Inventors exhibited incredible devices that harnessed the power of electricity. Demonstrations of physics became magic shows in public experiments. One such man by the name of John Henry Pepper conjured ghosts with sheets of glass and projection, and once used explosives in an attempt to make rain (Ritvo 201). Such extreme flamboyance and danger is not necessary to grab our attention, but it is important to remember how this era of “enlightenment” democratized science forever.

In the following years, scientists became highly valued authorities. Curious inventions like the radio and the light bulb became parts of every day life. Industrialization led to conservation and protection of natural areas, such as our national parks. Yet, people (especially children) have become more and more disconnected from our natural world. Electronic devices have replaced real outdoor experiences (Louv 123). Impending federal budget cuts to education, sciences and parks threaten this connection in the near future as well (Zhang, Brown). How can we rekindle the connection between communities and science?

Ladies and Gentlemen, behold, the Nature Intervention: an eternal prototype, or work in progress—movable, changeable, and flexible to meet the demands of location and community. It is a temporary or portable exhibit that can be installed in high traffic areas, small local parks, malls, or other places where people naturally gather. These spaces are easily accessible to anyone. Familiar environments can provide a new context for natural history exhibits. Unexpected locations, materials, and subject matter spark interest and excitement. The key to its success is (unsurprisingly) the element of surprise. But despite their mutable nature, Nature Interventions are sophisticatedly designed to reflect their content and theme.


Making the Invisible Visible is a nature intervention and design project that examined the successes and challenges of designers working with scientists, historians, and the community. Harnessing popular techniques such as community curation, creating spectacles, and encouraging (gasp!) touch and direct interaction with actual collection items, complex concepts and natural phenomena almost magically come to life with a small supply of easy-to-find objects and a bit of design thinking. To navigate this process, it was necessary to reexamine the role of designers and involve community members in the design and/or curation process. The designer also assessed how to balance the needs of humans and nature.  

What is the role of a designer?

Designers are in a unique position to mediate between disciplines and interpret complex problems such making parks and museums more accessible (Brown 232).  One could expand the role of the designer to include field research, outreach, or community liaison. Through the lens of design thinking, the designer can address the dualistic mission of conservation: to protect, and to inspire visitor appreciation.

Interpreters help visitors to appreciate the value of nature and history through education. Conservationists/conservators control the damage to objects or ecosystems by limiting visitor access with barriers like fences or glass cases. Perhaps design can answer some of these questions: How can visitors truly connect to what they cannot see or feel? What is the sense of preservation if resources remain hidden from the very people they are preserved for? Why should museums decide what is important to preserve?

What happens when curation is allowed to escape academia?

A new type of narrative evolves. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a perfect example of how curation spins a story around objects and ideas that may or may not have any academic significance. Its exhibits showcase an almost random collection of oddities with partially fabricated histories. What compels visitors to spend hours looking at string and listening to old wives’ tales? They inspire curiosity and connection to human experience through interpretation.

Curation is both satisfying and familiar for exhibit participants and can take many shapes (photo sharing, wall of notes, object exchange). The advantage to community curation is that visitors get to choose and arrange objects and give them their own meaning. Objects can be vehicles of nostalgia and remembering (a photo of a tree that someone sat under when they proposed to their wife) or even reminders of injustice or social triumph (work uniform). At Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, visitors have created labyrinths and unauthorized “museums”, another example of our inherent need to curate. By allowing community members to partake in the curation process (even a virtual one like Instagram), exhibits gain a new dimension: a communication of individual visitor experience and relationship to the subject.

Design Choices

The objective of this project was to bring science to new audiences and harkens back to the spirit of science democratization in the Victorian era. Design choices for Making the Invisible Visible reflect the intent of creating a Victorian science spectacle. Color, finish, typography, and interpretive writing style were based on examples from this era. Technology such as media players were hidden inside the exhibits, transforming them into windows through which visitors can see unusual natural wonders like roosting bats.

The peep holes were used as a way to draw visitors into the exhibit. They created a sense of mystery, revealing small environments like Victorian peep show boxes for children that contained miniature scenes. This antique aesthetic is a device for drawing visitors in and creating a sense of excitement (see figure 22).

Much of the approach to encouraging interactivity is based on the Montessori method of education, particularly sensorial learning materials. These materials inspire classification of the world around us through manipulating and organizing by color, texture, sound, etc. (Lillard 62). We create a sense of order and category for each new experience we encounter—framing the experience in the context of previous experiences as well as current mood/disposition. This is especially evident in child development, but also reflected in the behavior of adults, when encountering the unexpected. We adapt to our environment by organizing our intelligence. By paying special attention to the sensory experiences of touch and sound, exhibits call up a feeling of discovery and wonder reminiscent of childhood.

Does creating an intervention in nature defy the idea of conservation? Critics have debated that outdoor exhibits and land art often disregard the sanctity of nature (Black). An exhibit in a natural environment brings potential for damage/disturbance to wildlife. Awareness of visitor behavior, careful placement of objects, and fully reversible installation can inform environmentally responsible decision making.

Lessons Learned

Designing a nature intervention is not for the faint of heart. It takes cunning and bravery, but, also careful planning and elegant execution. Planning for the unknown is the most difficult aspect of an extemporaneous intervention. Working in a fairly new genre of exhibition design, the designer is at times making the rules or finding things out by trial and error. This confirms the value of considering the exhibit as a prototype that is never perfect or complete.  Unknowns of outdoor public areas, such as weather or not knowing who will wander into the exhibit bring new ideas and opportunities for revision. Bending the traditional form of exhibits to make them portable creates problems like sourcing materials to use for a purpose which they aren’t intended (not knowing precisely what is needed—only its function). Home Depot associates are not creative thinkers! Additional challenges include: sourcing electrical power, dealing with ambient noise, assessing normal traffic through the venue and working within a budget. The majority of the issues above can be alleviated through research, planning, and revision throughout the project.

Select enthusiastic partners to work with who have time to commit, provide the right expertise and help with materials for the project. The UC Davis Museum of Fish and Wildlife Biology and the Bohart Museum of Entomology were excellent collaborators with a genuine excitement for exploring the connections between design and science. They lent specimens, equipment, and served as subject matter experts. Their philosophy about using the collection for education made for an incredibly inspiring partnership.

Be organized, patient, courteous, and flexible. Make a schedule that plans for things not to go as planned. Consider the perspectives of collaborators and visitors. Be clear about ideas and needs before sharing them. And remember, enthusiasm is infectious!

Select a venue that relates to the exhibit’s subject matter and has appropriate conditions for the exhibit. What are the points of entry?  How would visitors be directed to the exhibit?  Lighting, traffic patterns, pathway type, and ambient noise must all be taken into consideration. Take care to choose a space that will not block exits or encourage damage to the exhibit or natural areas. Research venue regulations, and have a clear idea of what the exhibit will be like when securing permission for the exhibit. Find venue organizations that are excited about the idea of installing a temporary intervention. The UC Davis Arboretum shared an interest in temporary exhibits and proved to be a great connection between the wildlife in Davis and the students (who would be the primary visitors to the exhibit).

Test individual components before combining.

It is always better to find out that something won’t work before an entire project is planned around it. For instance: if an exhibit requires electricity, make sure there is a dependable way to source it.

Be creative and work around roadblocks. It is not always easy to do daring design work. Don’t be discouraged by the traditionalism of museums and parks. Small steps can make a big difference. Ask what IS possible?

Contribution to the Field

Making the Invisible Visible opens up new opportunities in the field of interpretation by providing a much-needed example of mobile outreach that is interactive and relevant. Many interpreters from urban parks have been frustrated by a lack of resources for outreach. This fresh approach from a design perspective can reinvigorate interpretive methods and lead to an increase in visitorship and new connections to surrounding communities.

This research has led to some useful conclusions that can be applied across many disciplines within design:

The designer’s role in general is becoming more and more multidisciplinary, creating links between experts, community partners, and the public. Everyone benefits from collaborative design. This approach creates a richer practice for designers and a deeper user experience (Abendroth 1.2). For example, designing the nature intervention with the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology led to new ideas for the museum’s website and outreach. A time-lapse film created for the project inspired the museum to create a similar video for training interns. The designer’s time spent in the field generated excitement for subject matter and inspired design choices.

Research through use has proven to be valuable in the past as well as throughout the design process. Prototyping is common practice among designers in the early stages of a project. But, it is less common to completely let go of the idea that a design must be complete. This opens the designer up to new options like trying multiple approaches and leaves room for updates and corrections. Most importantly, it allows the designer to make changes based on visitor input and needs without sacrificing the aesthetic choices that might influence engagement. There can be a balance between changeability and polished design work.

Visual Examples-Research

The design process began with research into similar design solutions like nature exhibits, pop-ups, and citizen science projects. The scope of the research was broadened to include festivals and community curation as examples of inclusion.

Over 30 related exhibits, projects, and events were researched and analyzed for the purpose of this project. Four of the most influential examples for this project included: 

Lost Horizon Night Market 

The Lost Horizon Night Market is a semi-secret event that takes place in New York and Oakland. People rent Uhaul trucks and create exhibits/activities in the back of them. For example, one of the trucks contained a birthday party that served cake and everyone sang happy birthday over and over. These trucks all park together in a mystery location and visitors who sign up for it receive a text that tells them where to go to see the exhibits.  While fun and extemporaneous, the downside to this intervention is that it is exclusive and not strictly legal.







Exploratorium–Listening Dishes

​This is an example of an exhibit created by the Exploratorium, a museum in San Francisco that is known for its playful approach to science exhibits. Passers-by learned about the science of sound by sitting in front of these whisper dishes and talking to another person several yards away. The dishes are a great example to learn from in all but the Modular and Mobile category, but the Exploratorium did at one time also have a “science around the city” mobile cart. 







Sibley Regional Volcanic Preserve

Sibley is a regional park known for its dormant volcano and labyrinths. Tucked away, just off the hiking trail there is an old shack. Visitors had collected remnants of dishes and animal bones and arranged them to create what could be construed as an exhibit about time. It has been around for at least 8 years and continues to evolve with each visitor that participates. It is not influenced by any sort of academic curation. This magical collection shows how visitors enjoy having some control over the content of exhibits to make them relevant. Many museums and events often leverage this kind of community curation on social media, but there is a charm to the pure unregulated aspect of this experience.






Berlin: Outdoor Exhibits
(and Preparation Exhibit at the Natural History Museum)

Making the Invisible Visible was inspired by the pervasive public history exhibits throughout the city for everyone to enjoy. These exhibits featured connected stories that took place where the exhibit was situated. The natural history museum had an exhibit about how exhibits and dioramas are made. What do these two have in common? Visitors get a glimpse of the past and insight into a hidden process…they make invisible things visible!








After learning from these examples and researching materials, a series of natural history exhibits was created in collaboration with the wildlife museums on campus at University of California, Davis. The designer went into the field with scientists to help with research and learn about the process of wildlife monitoring. The act of being directly involved in the scientific process inspired both the designer and museums to reconsider outreach methods and led to lots of great new ideas.

The exhibits that resulted from this process were placed along Putah Creek on a popular walking path in the Arboretum. The installations showcased research and restoration helping Wildlife near Putah Creek in Davis. Each exhibit showed something unusual (or usually invisible) and inspire visitors to learn more about local ecology.

Nature Intervention 1

Scientists from the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology install nesting boxes in trees along Putah Creek to monitor birds that are losing nesting space due to invasive species. The designer learned about these efforts by participating in banding, observation, recording size, weight and health of baby birds. 


Field Research

The most inspiring experiences were being able to view baby birds in the nest and hear the variety of sounds birds made while feeding, or defending their nest. Short of including live birds in the exhibit, a video was the best way to convey the experience of these delicate babies. One of the nesting boxes used for monitoring became the format for an exhibit. Due to the small size of the box an iphone was mounted to the inside to play the video of baby birds in the nest as well as various types of calls. Visitors could then peer into the hole in the front to look and pick up the ear piece (part of a phone from the 1900s) on the side to listen and identify types of bird calls.

Updates after Initial Prototype Feedback:

After showing the initial prototype to the Museum, a website was added top of the box to invite visitors to take photos of birds and help curate a gallery of images of local birds. Interpretive text was updated for better scientific accuracy. Based on user testing, the text and images were rearranged for more intuitive flow. Rather than the original stand (made from a microphone stand), a new, more natural look was created using a large branch from a walnut tree. In keeping with the Victorian aesthetic, the original design intent was hand lettering. However, it was more important that the exhibit be changeable. Therefore, removable vinyl was used instead, for easier updates. After struggles with how to attach the phone an elegant, and seemingly obvious solution surfaced…an iphone case. Sound files were updated to more accurately reflect birds shown in the video. The museum recommended a sound library that categorized these files according to behavior. Testing of movie player and phone proved to work well for a period of 5 hours. A stain and finish was added to create a cohesive look throughout the arboretum exhibits.

Location Research

Arboretum staff embraced the idea of a nature exhibit near the creek and facilitated further research into: minimizing damage to plants, impending construction in certain areas, visibility, keeping paths clear, lack of electricity, facility regulations. These concerns were taken into account when deciding on a location. The exhibit was placed off the path, where it would not encourage trampling of plants.  It faced the creek and was in close proximity to a tunnel which could spatially connect it to the bat exhibit. The insect and bat exhibits (see figures 17 and 19) followed a similar approach for location selection, as well as design process.

Nature Intervention 2

The second in this series was about how bats use echolocation to find insects to eat. The wildlife museum recently began a new bat monitoring program along the creek, using special devices and software to identify bat species by their echolocation sounds.  There is a DIY parabolic speaker hanging from the tree above the exhibit that plays a slowed down recording of these bat calls. The call sound visualizations are displayed and the museum provided a real bat specimen (see fig. 15) to attach to the exhibit so visitors could explore through the sense of touch as well. 

Costumed interpreters with live insects made provided an additional modality for learning and increased interaction between visitors and information. 

Nature Intervention 3

The third nature intervention was about insects and how they are a connection to birds, bats, and creek ecology. Large black and white prints were installed in a tunnel over the creek along with shadow boxes (see fig 20) containing local insects and photos of interesting insect oddities. A poster (see fig 19) with a phone number invited visitors to call another visitor in a different part of the exhibit to describe their experience in the arboretum. A hashtag and website were also provided to invite visitors to participate in collecting bird photographs as well as the image curation process. Laser and projection lights served as attractors to invite visitors to the area. 

Interpreting the Museum’s Collection
Nature Intervention 4

The Museum of Fish and Wildlife biology felt that their collection was underappreciated and underutilized. A mobile exhibit was created to show how scientists make bird study skin specimens for the museum’s collection. This mobile exhibit features battery powered internal lighting and media player which plays a time-lapse film which shows how specimens are prepared. Peepholes (see fig. 21, 22) reveal specimens in various stages of the process. It can be wheeled out to a variety of locations. The vinyl lettering looks “finished” but can be updated and modified. There is also a specimen on a stand (see fig. 23) that visitors can turn and view from all angles. This exhibit will be used for outreach activities at events on and off campus.


Implications of Theory and Practice

The public has an appetite for spectacle, discovery, and interactivity. Catering to this need is not just about playing to basic human nature. Instead, the use of spectacle can delight and inspire visitors to seek out new and related information. Bringing the museum to the community and asking for their participation can eliminate barriers and provides new opportunities for creativity and deeper connections. Visitors who feel they are a part of an exhibit are more likely to gain memorable and positive experiences (Durbin 244).

The temporary portable format of the nature intervention has the potential to support a variety of topics and venues. For example, its portability could be useful to showcase local narratives at farmer’s markets or shopping malls located in locations of historic interest. An exhibit in a meaningful location gives the visitor insight and the designer remarkable control over context. Making the Invisible Visible demonstrated that telling a story in a relevant location, collaborative design, and mobile exhibits combine as a powerful platform for engaging visitors.

If visitors cannot experience nature, what will inspire them to preserve it?

Making the Invisible Visible establishes a new methodology for park outreach by bridging the gap between scientists, conservation, interpretation and the community. The project embraces collaborative design and fosters creative solutions for improving access to natural resources. At the same time, it highlights the importance of preserving these resources. Moving forward dictates that we must embrace a philosophy that accepts and works within the duality of preservation.



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